Spending Cap May Block Beauty

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

It sounded like a nice idea: Use the District's new baseball stadium to showcase art, livening up the place with bronze statues, ornate entrance gates, even brightly colored tile mosaic staircases.

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities yesterday gave city officials a preview of its plans to beautify the future ballpark, until now a cold slab of concrete and glass being built in a former industrial area near the Anacostia River in Southeast. But like virtually everything related to the stadium project, the arts commission's creative license was shot down by a familiar refrain: There isn't enough money.

In this case, though, the arts commission wasn't even appealing for funds. Director Tony Gittens told the Sports and Entertainment Commission that he set aside $2 million for the project from the arts commission's budget.

No matter, responded John Ross, a senior analyst for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and member of the sports commission board. The D.C. Council's $611 million cost cap bans additional public spending -- and the arts commission is funded with public dollars, Ross explained.

"You'll have to go back to the council," Ross said.

His instructions were met with a round of groans. The sports commission has not forgotten the 2 1/2 years' worth of council debates and votes on the stadium financing, the lease agreement and, most recently, the parking garages. Money is a sensitive topic for the ballpark, scheduled to open in spring 2008.

Sports commission Chairman Mark H. Tuohey suggested hopefully that the council could grant a waiver for the arts program as early as next month.

Not so fast, some council members warned yesterday.

"There is a majority of this council who feel very strongly about the cap," said Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "I don't think any of that should be relaxed casually. Once you begin to casually do one thing, before you know it, there's more."

Sports commission chief executive Allen Y. Lew noted that the arts commission provided the artwork for the D.C. Convention Center at a cost of $4 million. In that case, the money was included ahead of time in the budget approved by the council. The stadium budget does not include money for artwork.

In the stadium's case, arts commission manager Rachel Dickerson said that, given the go-ahead, she intends to seek portfolios from artists. Then she hopes to choose as many as five artists to visit the stadium site near South Capitol Street and the Navy Yard.

After a final round of proposals, one artist would be selected for the project.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who did much of the political heavy lifting to get the stadium approved, was aghast to learn of the potential problems over art.

"Oh my God!" he exclaimed, when informed by a reporter. But after considering the situation for a moment, he conceded that it was appropriate to get council approval before authorizing any more spending because other members would otherwise cry foul.

"The last thing we need is anything like that," Evans said with a sigh.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company